Window of opportunity Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Every time a customer or client is unhappy with your goods or services, your business stands at a crossroads.

Either that customer will become permanently disenchanted, or you can seize a narrow window of opportunity to strengthen the relationship, turning a negative into a positive. The worst-case scenario is when someone isn’t satisfied and doesn’t tell you; not only can the problem not be fixed, but the disenchanted customer will recount the unhappy experience to anyone who will listen.

Do the math, and you’ll quickly realize that one customer’s negative perception can spread exponentially at a rate that rivals the spread of E. coli at a bad fast-food restaurant.

There is no simple way to guarantee customer satisfaction, but a good first step is making sure that embedded in the hearts and minds of every employee is the company’s sacrosanct policy that customers are always right, even when they’re partially wrong. This doesn’t become a way of doing business simply because it’s written in a manual.

Instead, management must educate employees about the domino effect caused by unhappy customers who will repeat the company’s transgression every time there’s a lull in conversation. But make sure they also understand the power they possess in their role of problem-solvers to satisfy the customer’s problem then and there, with no ifs, ands or buts.

After a negative experience is reversed, the satisfied customer will tell everyone about the positive encounter and the company’s fairness. My experience is that the customer who brings up an issue not only wants to right a wrong but is also, many times, subconsciously looking for a reason to continue to do business with the organization.

And just as negative comments from the disenchanted can ruin your business, the new believer can help you prosper.

When I was CEO of OfficeMax, we had hundreds of telephone customer service representatives who were trained to do the right thing for the customer the first time around. The best reps were those who had previously been on the losing end of a negative customer experience, finding themselves trivialized and demeaned by a would-be problem-solver who only knew how to say “No.”

Periodically, tenacious customers who were outraged by a perceived transgression made it their mission to find a way to reach me directly. The more creative ones would get my private number from an accommodating company operator.

Actually, they could have gotten through to me directly by simply asking the operator. But sometimes the chase is better than the catch, as the complainant tried to beat the system to get to the boss by circumventing intermediaries. Plus, the harder it was to reach the CEO, the angrier customers would get, giving them an added dose of adrenaline and bravado.

When I personally answered my phone after-hours and identified myself, the irate caller would launch into histrionics, with suggestions that I take the product causing their angst and place it where it shouldn’t go and wouldn’t fit.

After the ranting and raving stopped, I almost always solved the problem by immediately saying, “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

Over time, I became more creative in dealing with customers who called after-hours. Instead of answering with my name, I would simply say hello and state that I was the computer tech working on the big boss’s computer, but all of us at the company were “trained to stop whatever we were doing and help our customers.”

The caller would then rationally explain his or her problem. Playing the role of the customer-centric tech, I would say I was writing a note to the CEO explaining the problem. I also confidently proclaimed that I was sure there would be a resolution by sundown the next business day.

Many times, the customer would ask my name. I would give them a pseudonym and a department number that, if they made contact again, would be directed to my office.

Over the years, I received many letters of recognition for that “tech” who took the time to listen and bring the dilemma to the CEO’s attention.

We are only as good as our reputations. In my role as the nighttime computer tech, I knew that when I hung up the phone, we had again turned a likely defeat into a resounding victory.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.